Scottish higher education and social justice: Tensions between data and discourse

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This paper considers the extent to which higher education in Scotland may be seen as a socially just system. The paper begins with a discussion of recent literature on the nature of social justice, drawing on the writing of Fraser (2005), Phillips (2004) and Sen (1992). Phillips' argument that social justice must be understood in terms of equality of group outcomes, and not just equality of opportunity, is noted. Administrative data are used to explore social differences in higher education participation rates, which are linked to social differences in school attainment. The social priorities implicit in the allocation of the education budget by sector are discussed. The paper then explores policy makers' understanding of fairness and their views of Scottish Government policy. Key informants in the most selective institutions were strongly supportive of universal free tuition, whilst those in colleges and post-92 universities were more critical, suggesting that budgetary priorities should be reviewed in order to channel more funds to schools and colleges. The paper concludes by suggesting that there is a need for a more critical and nuanced debate on the type of social justice which is sought within higher education, the ways in which progress should be measured and the initiatives which are likely to foster a more socially just system of higher education in Scotland.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberEJ1117624
Pages (from-to)13-29
JournalScottish Educational Review
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - May 2016
EventWidening Access to Scottish Higher Education: Getting in and Getting on - Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Duration: 1 Dec 20151 Dec 2015


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